Kevin Roche

Kevin Roche has died at the age of 96. To my knowledge I’ve seen three of his buildings close up. The Ford Foundation building in New York (close to the United Nations) is well known, and stands out for the sheer volume of unutilised space it contains: a corporate statement of some power. You can see something similar in his headquarters building for the engine manufacturer Cummins, in Columbus, Indiana, which I visited as a teenager, and again in the mid-90s. It’s not just that a big chunk of the site is left empty: that space (plus a rare historic building) is also enclosed with modern colonnading. The enclosure features a well kept lawn. You’d hesitate to have your picnic lunch there, though: there is a strong sense of ownership, and what’s more, Columbus is pretty much a company town: many jobs depend on that lawn owner. Cummins also pays the professional fees for any building project in Columbus, as long as it is designed by an architect it has approved. Still, you can in practice walk on the grass without being shouted at.

The colonnade is light and thoroughly arcadian; it takes fifteen minutes to follow it around the site, an activity which will calm you. Its rectangularity stands in contrast to the irrational looking and excitingly zig-zagged plan of the of the main building.

That main building looks like a three storey structure; in fact it’s a single huge floor with a mezzanine in some areas. The façade just has three linear strips of glass that suggest storeys. In places this pattern is inverted, and the three strips are then (literally) mirrored towards the interior. Good use is made of daylight: a sustainability measure. There is playful use of light, generally, in Roche buildings.

One result of all the volumetric inflation is that a very low density Midwestern town is left feeling urbanised to a greater degree than if the (more often seen) office campus model of blocks set in green sward had been followed. There is parking, but it’s round the back, away from the centre. Employees could walk out for lunch, or to the mall (I don’t know if they do), since the building is absolutely central, and connects directly to the public pavement, via doors. There is a degree of engagement rare in American corporate buildings.

Next door is the Columbus Post Office, also by Roche (or Roche Dinkeloo). It precedes the Cummins building by about a decade. This, too, is inflated to really fill the site. Even the columns are inflated (the photo below suggests there are now cladding problems). On balance, it’s reassuring to see a public building treated this well. A negative reading of the coordinated urban ensemble would be that Cummins has insinuated itself as an institution. The positive reading would be that the town demonstrates public-private cooperation, and there is restraint: things are reasonable.

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